Hundreds of people turned out for a rally in front of County Hall on Thursday to protest one county legislator’s call for a public hearing regarding the potential threat posed by Syrian refugees. Among them were Iraqi refugee Ali Kadhum and Sudanese refugee Awadiya Ahmed Yahia, both human rights advocates threatened with death in their homelands.
If those worried about refugee terrorists knew all they’d gone through to get to this country, they said, they wouldn’t be so scared.
“I had to write my story, and if I recall, it was about 270 pages,” Yahia said. “I had to defend it in an interview before the United Nations.”
Watching the rally from the other side was County Legislator Joseph Lorigo, whose comments and request for a public hearing has drawn both support and condemnation. He, and those who support him, say residents here need more information and deserve answers.
“Asking questions about our area’s safety should not be construed as bigoted or ignorant,” he told the Legislature.
Lorigo’s comments over the weekend about keeping out Syrian refugees, and his request to hold a public hearing about the potential safety threat and financial burdens they may cause the county, ignited a much broader public conversation about the place of refugees in this community.
Rally attendees crowded the long sidewalk in front of County Hall and streamed into Legislature chambers. It was the largest audience the governing body has seen in years. Legislators spent hours immediately preceding the meeting struggling to reword Lorigo’s recommendation into something much more neutral-sounding than the original.
The Legislature ultimately voted 10-1 to hold an “informational session” regarding local costs, public safety concerns and procedures for Syrian refugees coming to Erie County. Gone were references to “wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing” and “future catastrophe.”
If Lorigo’s intent was to launch a public discussion, he was certainly successful.
Representatives from several ethnic, Muslim, refugee and faith-based groups came forward during the public rally in support of Syrian refugees – and all local refugees who they say have added to the population base of Erie County, bought homes, reinvigorated neighborhoods and started businesses.
Anna Ireland, speaking on behalf of all four major refugee resettlement agencies in Buffalo, as well as Jericho Road Community Health Center, said, “The immigrant and refugee population has been shown to be a critical part of the city’s resurgence, fueling the first growth in population that the city has seen in many decades.”
Drew Ludwig, pastor of Lafayette Presbyterian Church, said God directs all Christians to welcome refugees.
“As Christians, we are commanded again and again not to be afraid,” he said. “We are not going to be afraid! We have been given an identity. The Bible tells us we were foreigners, we were immigrants, we were refugees, so we were commanded – commanded – to love the immigrant, the stranger, the refugee.”
Erie County has been refugee hub for decades. Last year alone, the county welcomed 1,365 refugees, more than any other county in New York State. Refugees are considered a subset of legal immigrants to this country and are subjected to the most stringent vetting process of any immigrant group. They go through several background checks and must prove that they would be subjected to persecution or death in their homelands because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinions or membership in a particular social group.
Kadhum, an Iraqi refugee who attended Thursday’s rally, recalled the day he left his entire life behind after his brother was kidnapped and tortured to learn Kadhum’s whereabouts.
“I spent three years just coming to the United States,” he said. “They did a lot of background checks on me. They asked me about my childhood, where I went to school from my primary school until my college. They asked me about all my relatives, any activity I enrolled in, my faith, my opinion, everything.”
Nearby, Yahia stood in the background, holding up a sign that read, “I am a refugee. I am an American.”
Both she and Kadhum said they understand the fears shared by Lorigo and others. But if they had more information, they would not be afraid, the two said.
Lorigo said he’s proud to be a part of a process to help county residents get the information they need.
“Regardless of any refugee intention, noble as it may be, our nation and way of life are under attack,” he said. “Do I believe that every refugee coming to the United States is evil? Absolutely not. But I do believe we have an obligation to protect the citizens of this country as best we can.”